I’m writing this a few days after Father’s Day, because although none of this is raw or current for me, it’s still a tough day for me on-the-day, so.
Notice this is in the Stories category, because it’s that kind of write-up, the kind that when I share it always leads to me getting lots of messages of other people’s stories, sacred sharing, of so much pain and which I hold with the most tender hands that I can grasp with.
I share because so many people tell me they find value in knowing they are not alone. And because it’s hard to share stories like this, people for whom experiences like this are not a first hand reality don’t hear them so much, which is why “Happy Father’s Day” and “Happy Mother’s Day” are so casually flung around in some contexts.
What is trauma-informed?
In an oversimplified way, for a thing (i.e. Father’s Day), anything, to be trauma-informed, means to do three things:
- somehow acknowledge that trauma effects people (i.e. note that Father’s Day is a hard day for some people)
- support people in the context of the thing having their traumatic reactions (i.e. make alternative events for people grieving, surviving, angry, scared, or something other than “happy” so that you can support and validate their emotions and experiences, in culturally-appropriate ways, if this is something you’re capable of offering)
- do not retraumatize people – so, figure out what could do that and avoid doing that (i.e. do not wish everyone a “Happy Father’s Day” and give space/permission for people to opt out of your Happy Father’s Day celebrations, for example)
Ten Principles of Trauma-Informed Services
To be more formal about it, there are established principles of what makes something trauma-informed.
These are about providing mental health and other social services to people who have been traumatized, so they will read more organizational that “Father’s Day” makes you think. I share them anyway, in brief, for the more academically inclined reader to consider.
Here are those principles according to the oft-cited Elliott et al. (2005), which is a community psychology framework based in the empowerment literature.
- Recognize and thereby validate the long-term impact of violence and victimization on development and coping
- Make recovery from trauma a primary goal, not something dealt with alongside other goals
- Employ an empowerment model, which includes things like mutual goal-setting, collaboration, and lots more.
- Maximize choices and one’s control over one’s own recovery, which is related to empowerment
- Base services in relational collaboration with safety and trust, avoiding shaming or blaming
- Create an atmosphere that respects ones need for safety, respect, and acceptance, cinluding things like confidentiality, privacy, and dignity
- Be strengths-based, highlighting adaptations an resilience rather than pathologizing – this is where the term survivor is anchored, versus calling someone a victim
- Minimize possibilities of retraumatization (Editor’s note: I think this is especially relevant for autistic people, because we are so often told how to feel and how to act, when to share emotions and when not to; hearing and validating people’s stories is an art form to do safely and tenderly, but to give that space)
- Be culturally competent, importantly, and you can do this by asking questions and being open to learning with a person rather than being the director of a process
- Invite people’s input into design and evaluation, always, because people are the experts of their own situations
My Father’s Day Story
My birthfather is dead, but I do not miss him. He left us in rural Ashuelot, New Hampshire in 1978 when I was young, literally leaving us with no food and no money – by “us” I mean my birthmother, infant sister and me. On the day he abandoned us, we walked to the one small grocery store in town, and we begged.
My birthfather’s next wife was his boss from work, so right before the child support hearing, he had her “fire” him so that he wouldn’t have to ever send enough money for me to have enough food. Real standup guy.
I never saw my birthfather again until I was in my thirties and looked him up. At that point, I was pretty grounded and mostly just curious. By then I had learned that my birthmother never let him see or talk to me throughout my childhood, and I confirmed that with others.
He had sent a few cheap birthday gifts for the first few years after he left. One was a Mickey Mouse watch. One day, when my birthmother was beating me, that watch was broken. I kept it for years, thinking I could get it repaired or something.
It turns out cheap watches can’t be fixed, so I started drawing Disney cartoons and everybody thought I wanted to be an animator when I grew up. I was just trying to fix what I could fix. I later decided that I would be a psychologist when I grew up, with similar aspirations.
Back to birthfather, I met up with him two or three times in total, and basically learned he was a horrible person. For example, we met at some low cost restaurant (a diner of some kind) and he was that a-hole customer who, when the bill came, complained about everything and then demanded to not pay for the whole bill.
It was so bad that after he went outside, I gave the restaurant staff a bunch of money and an apology, explaining that they did nothing wrong. A few years after I’d stopped seeing him, I saw online that he had been arrested for sexually assaulting a customer in his store, and cringed anew to think that he was the source of part of my DNA.
He was adopted (by the Sanborne family) in a rather unclear way, in which, from what I heard, a police officer handed him over as a baby to the Sanborne father who was a local pastor I guess? And until his death, even though I had asked him to give me copies of his adoption paperwork, which he assured me that he did have, he never would give me copies.
All I wanted to do is to look up some things about where I came from, behind him in the family tree, so to speak. He would not. He’s dead now. And I’ll never connect with his half of my family tree.
So, Father’s Day. Who else comes to my mind every year? I don’t miss my abusive stepfather, who somehow always “made calls” and got DSS to accept his explanations of my injuries.
Neighbors called, teachers called, the guy next door (Dave) one day broke into our house and pulled my stepfather off from on top of me (beating me up, not otherwise assaulting me), and told me to run, to which I said thank you and did. I remember that day very well, and too many sensory details.
DSS came to school the following day, they came to the house, and they saw a messed up kid, acting out, always bruised, talking about how they “walked into a wall” again and… nothing? That was okay? Because that stepfather made some calls?
He was a corrections officer, which he reminded me often meant that he could “make calls” and get away with anything he wanted.
I later learned that most of his calls were to people who could not stand the guy and just didn’t want to deal with him, but whatever. Being super annoying worked for him.
Before my stepfather died, and before his dementia got bad, I visited with him a few years before, for a few hours at a time. He seemed more meek and way more sad than when I was young, and I mostly felt bad for him, because he described being so miserable in his marriage to my birthmother, which of course made sense.
He somewhat apologized for all the abuse and violence, in the way that he knew how. And, I’ll never forget this, he congratulated me for getting the hell out of there. “Good fa you.” He said that. In an otherwise asphyxiating sea of gaslighting from that family, it was a speck of validation, for just a moment.
And then, stepfather got dementia, made some hateful, nasty phone calls to me not long after that and I had to block him, then he got COVID and died, but hey, I tried to have some peace.
So, Father’s Day… What else have I got? I actually DO VERY MUCH miss my maternal grandfather, who was functionally the best dad I could have asked for. You know how he responded to my tomboy nature when I was little? He took me fishing, bought me baseball cards, and played hoops with me.
My grandfather didn’t know about my unsafe home, because I was really good at keeping secrets. That’s not on him, but at my grandparents’ house I got to know sanctuary and love.
I could just remind myself of my maternal grandfather’s story on Father’s Day, but unless I get dementia too, that’s not how human memory operates, is it?
I’ve got more related stories in the mix too, siblings who are dads but don’t talk to me, other people’s kids who look up to me in a parental way…man. And being autistic means a ton of emotional dysregulation that really puts me into a spin with all of it. I come out of these holidays with a metric ton of thoughts and feelings.
It’s hard. A more trauma-informed approach to Father’s Day would help. So would there being less abuse and gaslighting in the world, but, for now, trauma-informed approaches can buffer things.
These holidays are complicated.
Elliott, Denise E., Paula Bjelajac, Roger D. Fallot, Laurie S. Markoff and Beth Glover Reed. 2005. “Trauma-Informed or Trauma-Denied: Principles and Implementation of Trauma-Informed Services for Women.” Journal of community psychology 33(4):461-77. doi: https://doi.org/10.1002/jcop.20063.
What do you think, autistic kin who struggle with Father’s Day or Mother’s Day, do you relate?